Sunday night, Hazel English took the stage wearing a delicately checked blue and yellow sweater, acid wash jeans (relaxed fit), and pink vans. Fittingly for the Vera Project, the crowd was mixed in age and seemed subdued to the point of drowsiness. Most of us sat placidly along the walls through the two openers, but stood and drifted towards the middle of the stage as she and her band began playing.
It’s difficult to imagine this somnambulistic reception would be encouraging to an artist, but in some ways, it seemed appropriate. After all, English’s music is often described as “dream pop.” Her delicate Never Going Home EP sounds sun-drenched and elegiac, like a childhood memory. Vocals tracks are distant and shimmering, nestled atop one gentle guitar hook after another. It’s beach music, summertime blues music, and listening to it exhausted and comfortably felt like a natural extension.
Never Going Home traffics in a specific kind of laid-back melancholy that could, in theory, make for one massive bummer of a live show. Instead, English and her band, stripped of the EP’s hazy production, put on a show that was anything but.
The chief aesthetic virtue of Never Going Home is English’s ability to explore the ambiguous space between positive and negative. Bittersweet is the name of the game. On the title track, English, a native Australian, likens her relocation to Oakland to the burgeoning excitement of a new relationship but tempers her anticipation with nostalgia. “Never going home again,” she intones solemnly, “Turn the lights out when you’re leaving.” On “Make It Better,” she grapples with opposing desires–she wants everything and nothing, she’d like to be seen but also to be invisible. English’s fixation on this ambiguity evinces a vaguely terrifying truth–we spend most of our lives in the grey, liminal space between good and bad.
Onstage, Hazel English seems keenly aware of this. In person, she is petite, with slim face and dark eyebrows that knit together as she changes her guitar’s tuning between songs (which happens often). Her onstage banter is chirpy but restrained as she and her band grapple with the minor sound issues that arise. This show is the first on their West Coast tour.
Her band plays with a slightly heavier touch than is evident on the record which helps some of the airiness dissipate. On the EP, percussion is relegated to the background, a minor character in service to the guitar and English’s voice. In performance, the drummer gets his due and the additional rhythmic drive helps keep the more melancholic numbers from going flaccid. Both the guitar and bass player do double duty on compact synths, which lend the whole operation an appropriate air of compactness.
At the end of the set, which took about an hour, English and her band thanked the audience and left the stage. I was struck then by the cleanliness of their performance. There were no gimmicks and neither English nor her band spoke a great deal. Her songs, despite their emotional sophistication, are relatively straight-forward. But I felt more entertained and emotionally engaged by the simplicity of their performance than I have by most shows I’ve seen in Seattle. If Hazel English can do that much with a sleepy Sunday crowd and an EP of bittersweet songs, surely she’s someone who deserves your attention.